This “must read” Christian classic is perfect reading for advent season. Writing in the 4th century, Athanasius, one of the greatest thinkers of the early church, argues why the Son of God became human (i.e., the incarnation) — namely to rescue us from our corruption and raise us to restoration with the risen Christ.
Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius’ On the Incarnation
I previously wrote a review On the Incarnation by Athanasius (c. 297-373). Well, I read the book again and wrote another review that I thought I’d share with you here. Hopefully this second review, which covers a lot of the same things as the first one, has greater insight and clarity. Enjoy!
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In his work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius seeks to present “a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of His Godhead to us” (IX.56). Acknowledging that “such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His incarnation” (X.54) such that one is unable to present them satisfactorily, he nonetheless determines to set forth his understanding of “why it is that the Word of the Father . . . has been made manifest in bodily form” (I.1); his answer in short: “for the salvation of us men” (I.1). What follows is less a systematic doctrinal treatise and more an explanation and defense of the incarnation against its 4th century misconceptions and critiques.
Athanasius begins his account with creation and the fall. Of all His creatures, God bestowed upon mankind a special grace, the Image of God. For Athanasius this Image means a sharing in the divine being (“though in a limited degree”; I.3; III.11) and a unique incorruptibility because of this intimate knowledge of and union with the Incorruptible One (I.4-5; II.6-7; III.13). In such a state, man would have continued forever (I.3). But by “turning from eternal things to things corruptible” man embraced corruption—death—by forsaking union with the eternal (I.5; cf. I.4). Such is the setting for “the divine dilemma and its solution in the incarnation” (II).
On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius of Alexandria
St. Athanasius’ second treatise written to Marcarius, On the Incarnation, is an apologetic work in which Athanasius considers “the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst.” The work is not intended to be a doctrinal explanation of the incarnation but a defense of it against its 4th century critics.
First, Athanasius addresses the creation of man and his fall into sin, which is necessary background for a proper understanding of the incarnation. As Athanasius argues, humankind’s dilemma caused the Word to take human form.Through transgression man had broken fellowship with God and faced corruption and death. However, the same agent through whom the world and mankind was created would become the agent of its deliverance and re-creation. “For this purpose, then,” to maintain God the Father’s consistency in regards to his sentence of death on all due to sin and His ultimate purpose in creating the world and a humanity in His image, “the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.” The Word took on a body capable of death to face humanity’s corruption in death for the sake of all. “Yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die.” And, therefore, death could not hold Him and He emerged victorious from the grave, defeating death and obtaining incorruption through His resurrection. As Athanasius states,